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On the eve of Hillary Clinton’s trip, an insider’s look at the Indian political scene

Eriposte is a regular contributor to The Left Coaster, where he frequently writes on issues pertaining to the Indian sub-continent. In his previous contribution to UN Dispatch, eriposte wrote about the link betweem rural poverty and extremism in Pakistan. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in India from July 17 through July 21, visiting both Mumbai and New Delhi. This is a trip aimed at laying a foundation for a deeper and more strategic engagement with India. Interestingly, one of the leading Indian newspapers The Hindu reports that in Mumbai, “she will be staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel in an act of solidarity with the 26/11 victims” – a reference to one of the major sites targeted in the coordinated terrorist attacks last year (26/11).

Clinton will not visit Pakistan during this trip, implicitly sending a message that the United States no longer views India merely “through the Pakistan lens” – a message that was also indirectly conveyed earlier by eliminating India from the charter of Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. In a recent speech, Secretary Clinton said “We see India as one of a few key partners worldwide who will help us shape the 21st century” and characterized this period as “a third era…U.S.-India 3.0“. Some of topics that are expected to be discussed during her trip include global security, nuclear energy, climate change, trade and human development. Given the significance of this trip to US-India relations, this might be an appropriate moment to highlight some of the key players in India when it comes to foreign policy.

India is the world’s largest democracy, and unlike its neighbor Pakistan, has been able to sustain a vibrant democracy since their independence from colonial rule (see here for a discussion on why Pakistan and India took two different paths after partition). India has a parliamentary form of government that is somewhat similar to that of the United Kingdom. The Indian government has a bicameral Legislature (the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha) and an Executive that is led, for all practical purposes, by a Prime Minister (PM). The PM is usually the head of the majority parliamentary coalition in the Lok Sabha and appoints and leads the Council of Ministers that run the Indian government. The Indian President is a Constitutional head of state but holds limited powers and exercises those powers usually on the advice of the PM and the PM’s cabinet. As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has been very closely involved in shaping India’s foreign policy during his first term that ended earlier this year. In fact, for almost a year – from Nov 2005 to Oct 2006 – Singh took direct control of the External Affairs portfolio, acting as India’s External Affairs Minister in addition to his duties as Prime Minister. It is generally well known in Indian circles that he has sought to maintain a significant personal influence in India’s foreign policy. This was particularly evident in the active role he took during the debate on the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement.

Traditionally, outside of the PM’s Office (PMO), India’s Ministry of External Affairs has been a dominant player in India’s foreign policy apparatus. However, as security issues became more paramount, an additional player has emerged since the late 1990s. In Nov 1998, the new position of National Security Advisor (NSA) was created, reporting directly to the Prime Minister:

The National Security Advisor (NSA) of India is a member of the National Security Council (NSC), and the primary advisor to the Prime Minister, the Indian Cabinet and the NSC on internal and international security issues. He is tasked with regularly advising the Prime Minister on all matters relating to internal and external threats to the country, and oversees strategic issues. The NSA of India also serves as the Prime Minister’s Special Interlocutor on border issues with China, and frequently accompanies the Prime Minister on Foreign State visits.

The directors of R&AW and IB technically report to the NSA rather than the Prime Minister directly. He receives all intelligence reports and co-ordinates them to present before the Prime Minister. He is assisted by a Deputy NSA.

[RAW - which stands for Research and Analysis Wing - is India's external intelligence agency, whereas the IB - the Central Intelligence Bureau - is its internal intelligence agency. In some respects, the analogous agencies in the US are the CIA and the FBI, respectively].

Prior to the creation of the NSA, the Principal Secretary of the Prime Minister used to coordinate national security matters for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). That role is now in the hands of the NSA – making the NSA a fairly influential person in the Indian government. Unlike ministers in the PM’s cabinet, the NSA is not a member of the Legislature and is appointed directly by the PM. The current NSA is M. K. Narayanan. Narayanan was a former head of the IB and hails from the southern state of Kerala. In the immediate aftermath of 26/11, then Home Minister Shivraj Patil was forced to resign. At the time, Narayanan also submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister, but his resignation was not accepted by the PM. In a sign that his advice continues to be valued by Prime Minister Singh, Narayanan retained his position after the recent Indian parliamentary elections, even though the External Affairs Ministry saw numerous changes (more on this below). Most recently, Narayanan also accompanied Prime Minister Singh to the 2009 G8 Summit in Italy. He is a member of key committees in the PMO – Council on Climate Change, Trade and Economic Relations Committee and Energy Coordination Committee (all of which are chaired by the PM). As an aside, the powerful Principal Secretary of the Prime Minister is T. K. A. Nair, who was also asked to stay on after the recent elections. Nair, who also hails from Kerala, was originally from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and has held senior posts in the past, including that of Principal Secretary to former Prime Minister I. K. Gujral, principal secretary of the State government of Punjab (in northern India) and subsequently, the Chairman of the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB). [The PESB was "set up with the objective of evolving a sound managerial policy for the Central Public Sector Enterprises and, in particular, to advise Government on appointments to their top management posts".]

Since Clinton is expected to have significant dialogue with India’s Minister for External Affairs, it’s worth noting that the External Affairs department saw multiple changes after the recent Parliamentary elections, with new faces at top positions within the department. Pranab Mukherjee, who was External Affairs Minister, took over the role of Finance Minister and is in the throes of India’s annual, all-important Budget session of Parliament. The External Affairs Minister is now S. M. Krishna, who is a member of the Rajya Sabha and hails from the southern state of Karnataka. Among other things, Krishna is a former Chief Minister of Karnataka (whose capital is Bangalore) and a former Governor of the state of Maharashtra (whose capital is Mumbai, India’s largest city and business and entertainment mecca). He is partly credited with the transformation of Bangalore into India’s IT capital. Krishna has some connection to the United States as well. After his undergraduate Law degree in India, he completed graduate programs in Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and at George Washington University in D.C. and was also a Fulbright scholar. His background is predominantly in law, domestic affairs, industry and finance – so the External Affairs portfolio places him in a new role. India also has Ministers of State, who are usually more junior Ministers who generally report into a Cabinet minister and assist the latter. Within the External Affairs department, there are now two new Ministers of State. One of them is Preneet Kaur who hails from the northern state of Punjab. Kaur, a descendant of royalty from one of India’s pre-independence princely states, is a member of the Lok Sabha who has served in numerous government committees over the years on topics relating to women, water resources, agriculture, etc. (she also happens to be the wife of a former Chief Minister of the state of Punjab). The other new Minister of State is London-born Shashi Tharoor, self-described “author, peace-keeper, refugee worker, human rights activist”, whose parents hailed from Kerala. Tharoor is respected in India for his accomplished career and his work at the United Nations – starting at UNHCR and ending with his 5 year stint as the UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information. Tharoor came in a close second in the vote for the UN Secretary General post (to replace Kofi Annan), and his defeat was attributed primarily to the Security Council opposition of the United States under the Bush administration. In early 2009, he began a progressive grassroots campaign for election to India’s Lok Sabha from Kerala and was elected by a large margin (read this WSJ piece by Keerthik Sasidharan who was a volunteer in Tharoor’s campaign). Tharoor has sought to bring a fresh perspective to government and has been active not just in his external affairs role, but is making some waves in India with his use of Twitter to communicate with the Indian public.

The Ministers of External Affairs are supported and advised by a staff of influential Secretaries, who are at the pinnacle of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). The current Foreign Secretary is Shivshankar Menon, who also hails from Kerala and made his mark over the years through numerous key assignments. He is however about to retire by the end of this month. Starting next month, India’s new Foreign Secretary will be Nirupama Rao. Rao, who also hails from Kerala, is India’s current ambassador to China and her past diplomatic postings have taken her to Sri Lanka, Russia and the United States. She has an additional connection to the U.S. – she is a former Fellow of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and was Distinguished International Executive in Residence at the University of Maryland at College Park. (Rao’s husband, Sudhakar Rao, is the Chief Secretary to the state government of Karnataka).

No doubt, other Ministers also play a role in India’s external relations – including the Defense Minister A. K. Antony and the Home Minister P. Chidambaram. Antony hails from Kerala as well and was a former Chief Minister of Kerala and a former Minister in the Indian government. Chidambaram hails from the southern state of Tamil Nadu (that is closest to Sri Lanka). He is a lawyer with an MBA from Harvard, who was most recently India’s Finance Minister and previously the Vice-Chairman of India’s Planning Commission. A former socialist and trade union activist, Chidambaram has played an important role in the continued liberalization of India’s economy and trade policy. His appointment to the Home Ministry followed the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

P.S. Readers should not be surprised by the number of people from Kerala in senior positions in the Indian government – Kerala has a highly educated populace with the highest literacy rate in India. Interestingly, Kerala also happens to be one of India’s most left-leaning states, is well known for the much higher level of gender equality and human development indices. It is also interesting to note the significant presence of people from South India in major roles that determine India’s foreign and security policies.


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